From my notebook, Prado Museum, Madrid, Tues 23rd May, 2017.
‘In an exquisite arrangement for an emotionally draining painting, the four figures are linked in a composition that restlessly carries the gaze around it. A woman to the left holds a pose straight out of a Martha Graham ballet, her elbows raised and her fingers interlocked. Hers is an oddly large face, the most prominent of the three mourners, and however I view the painting, she’s always the starting point. The problem is that she’s a tad too conventionally pretty, and as such very nearly undermines everything with her sweetness. In contrast the Virgin and St John evidence palpable grief, their faces dully anguished, their bodies broken, bowed and frozen, as though they will never recover from the horror.
Then there’s the brutalised figure of Christ, sallow, shadowed and unmistakably dead. His high forehead and features are taut, as though the flesh has shrunk back to cleave even more closely to the skull. His joints are pronounced, ribcage visible and collar-bones sharp. The face is ageless, simultaneously childlike and old, the way the dead so often appear. The nails of his punishment have not just torn and bruised the skin, but have made the ligaments spasm. His ruined hands are frozen, clawed as they rest on what seems less an unravelling loincloth than an elaborately scrolled strip of parchment.
It’s agonising to look at. The artist wouldn’t have witnessed a crucifixion, but he certainly knew what a dead body looked like. His painting is brutally honest about the horrors men have wrought on man. He’s thought hard about how the beating of a nail through a foot that then has to bear the slumped weight of a body, will make the flesh swell around the wound. As my eye travels upwards from the sumptuous green pool of fabric around Christ’s head to the dramatic, self conscious pose of the woman whose skirt’s hem is his pillow, I think I know at last why her face is so sweet. It’s a punctuation mark, a relief, a moment to rest and catch the breath and hold onto life, before the restless journey continues down into grief again, to the pitiable and the broken.
When I paint, I always try to imagine the sensations that I’m depicting. This painter has imagined too, and his imagination has led him to a dark place. Whether you have great faith or no faith, the honesty of what he has imagined makes for stark viewing. This painting shows us the evidence of brutality and suffering. We recognise what it tells us, because brutality and suffering are as present in the world today, as they were when the Maestro de Virgo painted this unforgettable image in 1487.’
I didn’t miss it, Kenneth (see my earlier reply to Wendy White below), and I’ll be writing about here when my current pressing studio deadlines have been met. It’s a staggering painting.
Such acute observation, and sadly so true of horrors today. Thank you Clive for your superb writing.
It is amazing, Clive. I have been in the Prado many many times , and I feel I had never properly “seen” this painting. I have to go down to Madrid to work on Thursday, so I shall visit it, and look at it through your eyes.
Thank you Clive for the virtual visit to a favorite museum! How I wish we were there today to see “The Problem of White” and all of the other exhibits. An emotionally arresting work. I am saddened by the lost opportunity of the truncated cross. The Rogier van der Weyden Deposition your friend mentions is a thrilling work on every level. Keep up the good work! 😉 Xo
Clive, I always learn from your blog posts, you have a wonderful way with words as well as paint. Coincidentally I’m just completing an online course about the Netherland artists 1430-1480 so this painting falls slightly outside the period.
One painting we studied which I assume you saw at the Prado was van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross:
I doubt you could miss it, given it is approx 8 1/2 feet by 7 feet!
I had dinner in Newport with Robin and Robert last week and we’re going to stay for 4 nights in Belmont, the former John Fowles home in Lyme Regis, in August.
Sending love from Cambridge
Hello Wendy. Thank you for your kind words, much appreciated. Taking photographs was not allowed in the Prado. But that wasn’t an issue for me, because I’ve long had the habit of writing about the paintings I love or admire, while I stand in front of them. That makes me look so much harder than lifting a viewfinder to my eye and clicking away.
Be patient, the Descent from the Cross will be here shortly.
A beautifully insightful description, no wonder you’re exhausted after visiting an exhibition, and what more praise could an artist desire than that the onlooker sees what he sees? As you say, it just goes to show that human suffering does not change, here we are more than 600 years later and the painting could be a scene from the Middle East today. XxxxL
Liz, I almost put a news photograph at the foot of the page to make the point. In the end I left it to the words. But while I was searching for images, before deciding not to include one, I was taken aback time and again by the compositional similarities of news photographs with the painting. Before the cameras there were the painters, and it’s interesting that photographers draw on the shape of grief in the traditions of sacred art, when framing their contemporary subjects.
Sending love from Wales. xxx